Back to Bush: The GOP’s Winning Strategy?

Cornyn and Sessions make it embarrassingly clear: The party's agenda is still George W. Bush's—but they're damned if they'll admit it.
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Who says TV isn’t educational? And no, I’m not just talking about Real Housewives of New Jersey, which recently offered invaluable tips about how best to tear out somebody’s hair extensions in a catfight. I learned a couple of slightly more serious things watching two of Texas’ Congressional heavyweights do Meet the Press on Sunday.

Main lesson: There’s no question now, if there ever was, that Republicans are trying to win back Congress this fall without any agenda besides “Back to Bush”—which they can’t say, of course. And as a result, their strategy is the Big Empty: say nothing about what they want to do. And say it awkwardly.

Rep. Sessions, R-Dallas, chair of the GOP’s congressional campaign committee, and Sen. John Cornyn, who chairs the Senate campaign committee, were David Gregory’s guests along with their Democratic counterparts, Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Sen. Bob Menendez. (Watch the carnage here). If the elections were decided on the basis of sharp messaging—and complete sentences—by their campaign honchos, the Democrats would be cruising to a landslide. But in a mid-term, it’s dissatisfaction with the man upstairs—in the Oval Office—that matters, and Obama’s failure to make even Wall Street reform popular among voters is bolstering the Republicans’ chances of a historic turnaround, especially in the House.

The Dems’ best chance to hold off the tide is to make it clear that the Republicans haven’t had a new idea since, oh, 1981—and certainly haven’t evolved by even a scoshe past the Bush approach. So Gregory gave Sessions and Cornyn a chance—dozens of chances—to distinguish the party’s agenda from Bush’s. For starters, he tossed Sessions a big old softball, asking whether the Dems’ reminders of Bush amounted to a “scare tactic.” Sessions swung and whiffed:

SESSIONS: Yeah, of course it is, because Speaker Pelosi has been in charge for four years and denied the president the ability to continue doing what was successful in this country and that is making the free enterprise system not only more powerful but competitive with the world.

Say what? Pelosi was “in charge” during Bush’s last two years as President? It’s her fault that Bush’s presidency created fewer jobs than any since Chester Arthur’s? Time for a follow-up, as Gregory asks about Bush’s dismal job record.

SESSIONS: First of all, it’s not truthful. People had jobs when Republicans were, not only in charge, but George Bush was there. We doubled the size of the economy over 12 years. We did things that would empower the free enterprise system.

Um, where to start: Wasn’t Bush president for eight years, not 12? Are we counting economic growth during Clinton’s presidency and touting them up to Bush? And—Lord help you—are you really going to speak of the near-collapse of the U.S. economy as “empowering the free enterprise system?”

Gregory patiently tried again to get some hint of a Republican agenda—an idea, at least, asking: “I think what a lot of people want to know is if Republicans do get back into power, what are they going to do?”

And here, Sessions outdid himself—finally driving Gregory to the extreme solution of trying to get an answer from Cornyn:

SESSIONS: Republicans, and especially our candidates who are all over this country, very strong standing with the American people back home, we need to live within our own means. … We need to live within our own means.  Secondly, we need to make sure that we read the bills.  These bills are so bad, which is why we don’t have a budget that is being looked at now. The 2011 budget is staggering in terms of taxes, and the, the discipline that is lacking from this House Democratic leadership to even debate and bring the bill for the budget and appropriations to the floor is a lack of leadership. And lastly…

GREGORY: But, Congressman, that’s a, that’s a pretty gauzy agenda so far. I mean, what specific­—what painful choices are Republicans prepared to make? Are they going to campaign on repealing health care, for instance, repealing financial regulation? Would you like to see those two things done?

SESSIONS:  Well, first of all, let’s go right to it. We’re going to balance the budget. We should live within our own means, and we should read the bills and work with the American people.

GREGORY: How do you do it? Tell me how you do it.  Name a painful choice that Republicans are prepared to say we ought to make.

SESSIONS: Well, first of all, we need to make sure that as we look at all that we are spending in Washington, D.C., with, not only the, the entitlement spending but also the bigger government, we cannot afford anymore. We have to empower the free enterprise system. See, this is where…

GREGORY:  Congressman, these are not specifics.

SESSIONS:  Oh, they…

GREGORY:  And voters get, get tired of that.

SESSIONS:  That, that…

GREGORY:  You want to deal with entitlement spending…

SESSIONS:  They are…

GREGORY:  …will you raise the retirement age on Social Security, will you cut benefits in Social Security?

SESSIONS:  Let, let–let’s go…

GREGORY:  Will you repeal health care?

SESSIONS:  Let’s go right to it.

GREGORY:  Do it.

SESSIONS:  … We need to make sure that we allow employers, which was in that 52-page report that was presented to the president of the United States by CEOs in this country, we need to go back to the exact same agenda that is empowering the free enterprise system rather than diminish it.

GREGORY:  Senator, I’m sorry, I’m not hearing an answer here on specific–what painful choices to really deal with the deficit. Is Social Security on the table? What will Republicans do that, that, that would give them–like ’94, there was a Contract With America. What are voters going to say, “Hey, this is what Republicans will say yes to”?

CORNYN: Well, the president has a debt commission that reports December the 1st, and I think we’d all like to see what they come back with.

So that’s Republican debt-reduction agenda: Wait for Obama’s commission to recommend something! As Van Hollen, who could hardly contain his amusement while Sessions foundered and fumbled, pointed out: “They can’t answer that basic question: What, what are you going to get that’s different? … Republicans want to get off with whining rather than telling people what they would do.”

Sixty-four House seats held by Democrats—including Chet Edwards’ and Ciro Rodriguez’ in Texas—are generally considered “competitive” at this point, according to the reasonably reliable Cook Political Report. The GOP needs 39 to retake the majority. And while the prospects for that look good, given the usual tilt away from the President’s party in mid-term elections—and given Obama’s sagging approval ratings—maybe the best hope for Dems would be to have Pete Sessions on camera, frequently, from now till November. There’s not a politician in America who can botch saying nothing like the man from Dallas.